The Ethiopian long-distance running great speaks out about the impact of the coronavirus and what can be done to help

Haile Gebrselassie has been greeting his friends the same way for weeks. “Congratulations,” he says, as a joke. As if to say: we survived another day.

As well as donating over £30,000 to a Covid-19 fund set up by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the long-distance running great has been offering words of advice and support at a time of great uncertainty.

“This is not a time to take advantage, but to save lives,” he says. “Right now we have to stand side by side.”

Alongside his successful athletics career, which featured two Olympic and four world gold medals over 10,000m as well as four world indoor titles, a world half-marathon gold and 25 world records, Gebrselassie has become an entrepreneur.

He now owns several hotels, coffee farms, an auto parts factory, a school and a cinema in Ethiopia. Many of those places have been closed down due to the coronavirus crisis and that worries him. The 3000 people who work for him are in a financially uncertain position. He negotiates with banks to continue to pay their salaries but admits it gives him sleepless nights.

“I don’t sleep more than four hours a night,” he says. “What happens if my employees have no income? What happens if something happens to me? Who will take care of the people I love?

“Even as CEO, I have no control over this situation. Maybe that makes me listen to my employees and customers better. What do they think? I can’t make it without them.”

He wants to raise awareness not only about the coronavirus, but also about the famine that could follow.

“Many of my employees work on coffee farms,” he adds. “I urge them to also plant potatoes. If not for sale, then for themselves and their families. Then they will have something to fall back on.”

The 46-year-old has used his position to speak out about the impact of the coronavirus and what can be done to help and believes others in the public eye could also be sending messages of support.

“Athletes are gaining fame and wealth thanks to their fans,” he says. “Without those fans they would be nothing.

“It’s great that athletes donate for Covid-19 funds, but they could actually also give an encouraging message to those in need: don’t worry about the darkness of today, think about the light of tomorrow. ”

Does he dare to predict what the sports world will look like after Covid-19?

“That is difficult to say, but it is certain that things are getting worse,” he replies. “Many companies are at a loss. No sport without sponsors. I wouldn’t be surprised if we once look back with melancholy to the days when companies sponsored the Olympics.”

Asked what we should especially learn from this crisis, Gebrselassie replies: “That we should be humble. Support each other.

“This virus affects everyone, whether you live in a slum or you are prime minister of the United Kingdom. Nobody is safe. You could see that lesson as a golden opportunity for people.”

» This is a version of an interview by Danielle Pinedo first published by NRC in the Netherlands

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